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Easley Art Cuts Trigger "Call to Arms"

Arts advocates protest "disproportionate" cuts--42 percent since the governor took office.


Arts advocates and activists are mounting a "call to arms" in response to Governor Mike Easley's proposed funding cuts in the 2003-2005 state budget. The governor's budget, released March 5, calls for a $626,000 cut in funds for the North Carolina Arts Council--a 12.8 percent reduction from last year. The cut occurs in the context of an overall cut of only 4.9 percent in funding for the state's Department of Cultural Resources, the division that funds North Carolina's arts, libraries and historical sites and resources.

If enacted without change, the cuts would contribute to a 42 percent total decrease in Arts Council funding since Easley took office.

Well over 50 arts administrators, advocates and patrons from as far away as Charlotte, Boone and Rocky Mount gathered in Greensboro on March 11 to discuss the impact of the proposed cuts at twin field meetings of the North Carolina Arts Council and Arts North Carolina, a statewide advocacy organization.

Though the proposed cuts come at a time when some states are considering fundamentally reducing or eliminating funding for the arts altogether, the governor's announcement still came as a surprise to the arts community.

"I'm a little bit confused," confessed Terry Milner, executive director for the North Carolina Theater Conference. "At a forum in February, Dan Gerlach, the governor's chief budget advisor, said in front of 120 people that the arts weren't going to receive a disproportionate amount of cuts." Karen Wells, executive director for Arts NC, agreed: "Since our expectation was that there would be no disproportionate cuts to any arts organization, it was a very shocking announcement. We didn't imagine that we'd need to go back, retrack and make our case with the governor's office."

A disparity in funding to other arts organizations further surprised arts advocates last week, and led to charges of favoritism and inequity in the budgeting process.

Easley's proposed budget calls for no cuts in funds for the North Carolina Museum of Art or the North Carolina Symphony. The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, The Lost Colony and Flat Rock Playhouse, whose funds have been politically protected on separate line items, also saw no decrease in funding in the proposed budget. All are high-profile, high-visibility arts organizations--in contrast to many of the 844 community and arts organizations the Arts Council funds across the state. The difference between the two led Secretary of Cultural Resources Lisbeth Evans to call the grand fund cuts "easy money" in the Greensboro meeting: "It doesn't have a face."

"When you cut The Lost Colony, everybody knows who you're cutting," Evans said. "When you cut the Shakespeare Festival, you know who you're cutting. That's not the case with these others."

Commenting on the separately line-itemed organizations, Secretary Evans criticized the disparity in funding levels: "There's no reason they should not have been cut and the Arts Council funding should have been. I'll say that publicly. And since I have the press here I'm sure I'll be quoted."

Further disparity is found in the cuts within the Arts Council's budget. Over half a million dollars in proposed cuts come from the council's grants programs, which are distributed statewide to organizations for general support or specific projects. The amount reflects a 21 percent reduction in funds. By comparison, Grassroots arts council funding was cut by $107,000--a nine percent decrease.

"Whoever made this cut understood where the Grassroots money went," Evans said. "They knew: They could take their budget and they could see that Onslow County was going to get X amount of dollars.

"With the grants, there's not a list that's readily available for where that money goes. It doesn't have a face."

The disparity in funding cuts has led Arts North Carolina to cry foul--and to begin organizing a three-pronged protest in response. The leaders of the association, formed in late 2001 out of two earlier state arts support groups, shared their agenda with arts administrators, patrons and advocates at a separate meeting in Greensboro on March 11.

"The board has voted on one major agenda for this year: no disproportionate cuts in funding," said Arts NC lobbyist Keith Martin. "In the wake of the climate of the economy, the looming threat of war and the stock market tumble, it would be unrealistic of us to know that there weren't going to be cuts. However, we don't want to be cut disproportionately."

"We're more than willing to take our fair share of the cuts," Martin continued. "We're willing to take our medicine. But we're not willing to take [his] medicine, [her] medicine, and [their] medicine as well."

Martin later stressed that the organization's objective would be to restore funding for all arts organizations. "We don't want to be made whole at the expense of our colleagues or other divisions at the Department of Cultural Resources," he said. "This isn't about funding the symphony, the Shakespeare Festival or The Lost Colony--they deserve the money. The worst thing we can do is fight with each other. Some may try to pit us against each other--it's Strategy 101--but we're not going to let it happen. We will hang separately if we all don't hang together."

Expressions of frustration at last Tuesday's meetings sometimes segued into voiced suspicions that the governor's office wasn't actually the party responsible for the cuts. In the wake of published accounts last week that roughly one-sixth of Easley's proposed spending cuts were left to the "management flexibility" of department heads, audience members closely questioned Secretary for Cultural Resources Lisbeth Evans on her role in the proposed defundings.

Evans denied any responsibility for the cuts. "Let me assure you all ... that the governor didn't take the cuts [Arts Council director Mary Regan] offered up. And I didn't go to the governor and say 'Don't take Mary's cuts, take the grant money,' I can assure you of that."

"In fact," Evans continued, "I got a phone call that they were going to take three times as much as they did and I begged them out of it."

The executive assistant to Franklin Freeman, the governor's senior assistant for governmental affairs, confirmed this week that the Arts Council's cuts had originated in the governor's office.

At the meeting, Evans sought to characterize the cuts as part of a statewide rollback on grants: "It was not targeted to the arts, it wasn't targeted to the arts council, and it certainly wasn't targeted to galleries, or individual artists or programs," Evans said. "It was a direct target to grant programs in the state budget."

In a later analysis, Regan concurred: "It doesn't appear that there was a whole lot of method in what got cut the most."

By comparison, the methods being used to counter the proposed cuts are anything but ambiguous. "We will conduct a full-fledged frontal assault on the governor's office," Wells noted last Tuesday night, "letters, phone calls and e-mail. Because it is clear to me that we have not been clear to the governor. And that's something we must do, not only for what impact it might have this year, but so that in future years, it's clear."

An Arts NC e-mail distributed to the organization's listserv Monday afternoon asked arts patrons and advocates to write the governor's office "before April 1," and send copies of the correspondence to Evans and Arts NC.

The organization subsequently plans to draft legislation with the aid of sympathetic members of the House and Senate to restore funding to the Arts Council.

The third part of Arts NC's strategy involves inviting the community to support the arts by attending an "Arts Day" at the state legislature, May 7-8, 2003.

Finding sympathetic legislators may not be the easiest task. "We've never seen anything like it. ... Out of a total of 170, there are 52 new members in the state legislature," noted Arts NC's Martin. "In a lot of ways we're starting over; that's unprecedented turnover. We lost a lot of our most ardent supporters, due to retirement, redistricting and elections. The good news is that we've got many new advocates."

At times the Greensboro meeting seemed a beginner's seminar in political organization, complete with tutorials in activism for the politically gun-shy. "Activism is the strategic implementation of advocacy," Martin advised the crowd, before leading them in political networking and information gathering exercises.

Indeed, even at its highest levels, the group seems still in the process of gaining political consciousness.

While the fledgling arts advocacy group worked hard during its first year in existence to establish rapport with state legislature, its leadership admits it virtually ignored the governor--who, according to the state constitution, begins the budget process. "We were not in touch with the governor," Wells said.

As a tactic, it may well have contributed to the very disconnect the group is complaining about in the governor's funding priorities for the arts.

"Our strength has been in our message to the legislature," Wells continued. "The governor has other clear priorities that he stays very tight on point about, clearly. I certainly didn't sense from the budget that we had been very effective at all in communicating to the governor's office."

"I can truthfully say we won't assume understanding and information in the future in the governor's office about the impact of these grants programs again," Wells said.

The group's legislative agenda also appears unclear at this point. In a later interview Wells stated that the group's goal in drafting legislation would be for zero cuts in arts funding, and not the "no disproportionate cuts" stance the group took in Greensboro. "That would be the minimal amount we would go for, to bring them up to level funding," Wells said. "It's indeed possible as we begin this advocacy season and as we hone our message that we actually drop the language that "we're willing to take our medicine."

But opinions differ on the group's chances of effecting change at this point in the budgetary process. Secretary Evans sounded pessimistic at the meeting last week: "This is as good as it's going to get, in my personal opinion, for arts in North Carolina or for the Department of Cultural Resources," she said. "Times are horribly tough."

Evans then cited a litany of cuts elsewhere in Gov. Easley's budget--$42 million from local schools, $11 million from the community college grants, $47 million from university grants, $33 million from the Clean Water Trust--in an attempt to place the arts cuts in context. "You need to know how horrible it is in North Carolina," she said, before characterizing the present level of budget cuts for the arts as "a home run" and "better than any state in the union has gotten in trying to balance the budget about the arts."

"For an $800 million cut in the state budget, if $600,000 is all they wanted, it's a pretty happy point," Evans noted on March 11.

But, as it turns out, $600,000 wasn't all they wanted. Secretary Evans emerged from a state budgeting committee meeting as we went to press Tuesday morning to announce that an additional three percent was going to have to be cut all across the state government. "We have no idea where the cuts are coming from, we just started looking at it," Evans said. "Our first priority will be to fulfill the department's mission, our second priority will be to take care of our employees, and our third priority will be to just take a deep breath and do what we have to do."

Evans was "not very optimistic" that anyone could change the proposed cuts "unless there are new taxes, particularly with the added cuts this morning."

"When you look at it compared to other states in the union," Evans said, "these cuts are very minor, compared to Colorado, Florida--you can just go down the list."

Evans voiced concern with the effects a group of amateur lobbyists could have on arts funding. At the meeting last week she warned she didn't want the group to "end up with a bigger cut tomorrow than you had today."

Tuesday morning, Evans explained, "Everybody now is looking for three percent more (to cut). If they go over there and are with someone they're not used to, and someone gets indignant about their budget cuts and gets into an argument with a legislator, that can cause a problem. If the arts come over there whining, and the legislator's worrying about--choose your general public poison: keeping prisoners in place, educating children, Medicaid or Medicare--and they get into an argument with a legislator for whom art is not their favorite subject, they'll say 'Well, heck, I don't want to give these people any more money. I'm going to take what they've got.'

"That's what I was trying to caution them about--just to make sure when they were lobbying that they need to understand where their context was compared to other issues the legislature might find important."

Evans claims that Gov. Easley has been very supportive of the arts. "Our department took one of the smallest cuts in state government: 2.8 percent. It was a grants issue. All of the grants in state government got cut and this one didn't get cut as much as some of the others. When you look at grant money, the amount that got taken away from the arts was the least that was taken from anybody." EndBlock

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